ISO civility in online comments

May 9, 2012

The Internet is full of awful people saying awful things to each other. At least, that’s the impression you’d get from reading most comment sections of most Web sites.

From site to site and topic to topic, comments are consistently a black eye. Despite years of attempts to massage, curate, coax and moderate, the unbridled “discussion,” the Internet still seems mired in the kind of discourse best reserved for a bar brawl. Or that bar’s bathroom wall.

Running a site of my own with a very vocal readership, I’ve seen firsthand when comments go from heated debate to house on fire. When I negatively reviewed the most recent Windows Phone device, Microsoft fanboys wasted no time (and spared no expletive) letting me know how wrong I was. Also, what a terrible human being I was.

When I published a column here in The Washington Post about the idea of socializing our nation’s wireless networks, Libertarian blog Reason picked up the piece, and the resulting comments got ugly fast. Within six responses, physical violence was threatened. About 20 comments later, someone was calling for my death.

I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. This is just a taste of some of the language used: “I’ve certainly seen faces that begged to be smacked, but I really want to take a hatchet to that smug b------’s face.”

Now, it’s likely that few people would say something like that in person, but the Internet gives anyone a safe vantage point to sling punches without fear of retribution. And that’s what makes comments so irresistible to some of the worst instigators.

Lately, there’s been a new focus on commenting culture, with significant players in the industry starting to think and talk about the monster we’ve created and how we might course-correct after all this time.

Most notably, Gawker Media’s Nick Denton made a lot of noise in March and April about the blog network’s new commenting system, nicknamed Powwow. Powwow is an attempt to fix issues Gawker had created during its last commenting experiment, which ranked users with stars and allowed moderators to move comments to separate threads that strayed off topic. That created a legion of super users who gamed the system and didn’t contribute thoughtfully. Denton described the move as a “terrible mistake.”

The new system is actively trying to court better contributors by giving users control over whether replies to their comments are seen. Ranking of featured comments is now done by algorithm, not users. At the time of this writing, it wasn’t clear whether the system had improved the tone of Gawker’s comments, but it has certainly cut down on some of the noise.

Elsewhere, companies such as Disqus (a universal commenting system that can be added to almost any Web site) are introducing tools to rank other’s comments more effectively (they hope) and focusing on social networks to act as a counterbalance to the culture of anonymity that’s so rampant in commenting sections.

Facebook recently allowed its commenting module to travel to third-party sites, also encouraging interaction between real people instead of faceless nicknames.

Joel Johnson, editor of New York culture site Animal, took it in the other direction altogether. He suggested that not only are comments bad but they’re bad for business. His choice? Eliminate them.

I think the problem with commenters isn’t so much a technology issue as a social one. Somehow we’ve rewarded, or at least learned to tolerate, a world where the drive-by insult is the norm. As we crank up the ease and pace of our “social” interaction while cranking down our standards for what actual discussion should look like, we seem to be increasingly comfortable with people simply behaving badly.

Among TV talking heads yelling over one another, our demand for out-of-context, bite-size pieces of information and pop culture’s terrible Coke or Pepsi mindset that demands we pick one side or the other, bad commenters don’t seem on the fringe. They seem mainstream. And that bad discourse isn’t just an accident; we’re desensitizing ourselves to rotten behavior. We’re letting it slide.

So perhaps the solution isn’t just about making the best, newest tool possible. It’s not about a better algorithm, filter or team of moderators.

Maybe the way to encourage intelligent, engaging and important conversation is as simple as creating a world where we actually value the things that make intelligent, engaging and important conversation. You know, such as education, manners and an appreciation for empathy. Things we used to value that seem to be in increasingly short supply.

Oh, boy, I can’t wait to see the comments on this one.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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